THE COUNTRY, THE PROVINCES AND THE PEOPLE:
Laos offers forests, mountains, valleys, highlands, plateaus and rivers. The Mekong flows through approximately 1,900 kilometers of Laos's territory and forms a rough natural border with Thailand, in the west. This
river has shaped the lifestyles of the people who live along its banks,
developing a culture that is uniquely Lao. As the river flows from the North to the South, the landscape and modes of life of the Lao people alter. Both the historic capitals have also been located on the banks of the river - Luang Prabang and Vientiane.
Each province is home to several ethnic groups and there is tremendous variety and diversity within each province – each ethnic minority has its own identity, language and culture - ceremonies, handicrafts, jewelry – a way of life.
Laos is divided into 16 provinces (Kang), which are further subdivided into districts, one municipality (Kumpang nakon), Vientiane, and one special zone (ketpisade), Xaisomboun.
THE NORTHERN PROVINCES:
Phongsaly, Bokeo, Oudomxay, Houaphang, Luang Namtha, Luang Prabang, Xayabouly Province and Xieng Khouang
The population has 13 minority ethnic groups; Khammu, Tai Dam, Tai Deang, Yao, Leu, Hor, Hmong, Akha, Yang, Bid, Lolo and others.
The province is home to a large number of ethnic minorities, each with their own lifestyle and customs.
The name “Bokeo” means pits of sapphire. Gold and Sapphire mining are carried out here and dates back many centuries.
Oudomxay is populated by some 13 ethnic minorities mainly Hmong, Ekor, Akha and Khamu.
Houaphang province is an abundant land, bordered by Xieng Khouang and Luang Prabang to the West and Vietnam to the East.
Luang Namtha Province
Luang Namtha has the largest number of ethnic groups of any province in Laos and is one of the most colorful provinces. Muang Sing District has a wide variety of crafts produced by Akha, Yao, Tai Dam and Hmong villagers. In Namtha District, near Tai Dam and Lanten village one can see the production of silk, paper and other local crafts.
Xayabouly Province is a mountainous province situated in the northwest of Laos. The local people are mainly agricultural, growing rice, cucumbers, cotton, cabbage, beans and sugarcane.
Luang Prabang Province
Luang Prabang was the capital city of the Lane Xang Kingdom and is named after the gold image of the Buddha, the Prabang. The capital was transferred to Vientiane in 1563 A.D.
Xieng Khouang Province
This province consists mostly of mountains and hills.
Vientiane Capital, Vientiane Province, Bolikhamxay, Khammouane, and Savannakhet
Vientiane is the political and economic capital of the country. In 1563, King Setthathirath made Vientiane (in Lao language Vieng Chan) the capital of the kingdom of Lane Xang.
Most people in this province are farmers and agriculture is the major source of income here.
Paksanh is the capital town and is a commercial center.
Khammouane is situated in the central part of Lao PDR. The province has fertile land and is well suited for agriculture: rice, cabbage, sugar cane, bananas, etc. The population is made up of lowland and up-land Lao groups: Phuan, Tahoy, Kri, Katang etc.
Savannakhet town is situated on the banks of the Mekong River and is a very active trade junction.
There are 11 ethnic minorities including Lowland Lao, Phoutai, Tai Dam, Katang, Mongkong, Vali, Lava, Soui, Kapo, Kaleung and Ta-oi.
Champasak, Sekong, Salavanh and Attapeu
The province lies is in the Southwest region of Laos. The capital is Champasak. This is one of the main political and economic centers of Lao PDR. There are many different ethnic groups in Champasak each of who have their own language, culture and lifestyles.
Sekong province is situated in the heart of southeastern Laos. Sekong province is rugged and wild. The province is dotted with villages and small towns, where the majority of people follow and the unchanging lifestyle of traditional farming that they have followed for centuries.
This southeastern province has plenty of wildlife and biodiversity. The main occupation of the people is agriculture.
Attapeu is home to nine major tribes are: Alak, Katang, Kaleum, Katou, Suay, Nge, Lave, Tahoy, and Nyajeung.
THE ETHNIC GROUPS
A complete classification of all ethnic groups has never been undertaken. Joachim Schliesinger in his work Ethnic Groups of Laos (White Lotus, 2003), has identified 94 different ethnic groups in Laos, although he feels that this cannot be regarded as a final figure but only an indicative one which can serve as the basis for further work.
The 1985 census listed forty-seven ethnic groups, some with populations of only a few hundred. These groups are broadly classified into three categories on the basis of common origins and language. While this kind of a classification ignores many differences among groups it also serves to give us a broad idea of what constitutes the population. The three fold classification is as follows:
Lao Loum or Lowland Lao – all ethno linguistic Tai groups
Lao Theung or Midland Lao - Mon Khmer and Austronesian groups
Lao Soung or Highland Lao - Tibeto Burmese and Hmong Yao groups
LAO LOUM – LOWLAND LAOTIANS: all ethno linguistic Tai groups
Tribes that live in the low-lands include the Tai Lao, Tai Nua, Tai Daeng, Tai Khao, Phu Taum, Lao Puan, Lao Yuan, and Tai Lue.
Fifty four per-cent of the country's people are ethnic Lao, the most dominant group in Laos, which constitutes the majority of the Lowland Tai. The Lao belong to the Tai linguistic group who began migrating southward from China centuries ago. A further fifteen per-cent belong to other "lowland" groups, such as Lue and Phu Tai, which together with the Lao people make up the Lao Loum. The official and dominant language is Lao, a language of the Tai linguistic group.
Lao Loum traditionally live in established villages usually located near rivers, streams or valley areas that give them access to land suitable for paddy cultivation. Villages' size range from around twenty to over 200 households and usually have between 200 to 300 people. Farming is the primary occupation of the people. In addition, villagers hunt, fish and gather bamboo shoots, mushrooms, fruit, medicinal or culinary roots and plants and supplement their incomes with weaving, blacksmithing and other occupations. Men hunt and fish with throw nets and hooks, while women fish with dip nets and baskets and collect roots and wild vegetables.
Lao Loum houses are raised one to two and a half meters above the ground. This keeps the house dry in the rainy season and at the same time provides a shady area under the house to work or rest during the day. Sizes of houses commonly range from five by seven meters to eight by twelve meters The walls and floor are usually made of woven split bamboo or sawn wood; the roof is constructed from grass thatch, bamboo, wood shingles, or corrugated steel roofing sheet. A separate rice granary is built in the house compound, on posts using a construction similar to the house. Livestock is sometimes kept under the house. Most houses are built with a porch on the long side that is used for visiting and as a public area. The interior is divided into sleeping rooms, a common room for visiting and eating, and a separate kitchen area and side porch.
Governance in a village is through consensus, rather than by elected representatives alone. Typical issues that are discussed could be whether to build or expand a village school or dig a community well, or how to organize the annual ceremony for the village protective spirit. Each family contributes equal amounts of labor, material, and money to village projects.
Lowland Lao are almost all Buddhists, and most villages have a wat, with a monk in attendance, which serves as both a social and religious center. The wat is frequently used as a place for village meetings, as it is often the only building large enough to accommodate everyone in the village. Lao Loum also respect the phi (spirits), which act as village protective deities. Regular festivals are celebrated yearly to propitiate the deity and secure the continued good fortune of the village and its inhabitants.
LAO THEUNG – MIDLAND LAOTIANS: Mon Khmer and Austronesian groups
Tribes that live on the mid lands include the Kha, Jae, Lanaek, Kaen, Pana, Sida, Bid, Samhang, Dam, Hork, Phu Therng, Fai, Sela, Panla, Sae, Kasaeng, Suan, Taoy, Lawae, Alak, Katang, Therngnam, Therngbok, Thernglok, Insee, Yahien, Kayak, Khamu, and Taliang.
The Lao Theung, or midland Lao, constitute approximately 24 percent of the population. They comprise the Austro-Asiatic Mon-Khmer tribes and consist of at least thirty-seven different ethnic groups – the size varying from nearly 400,000-- the Khamu--to fewer than 100--the Numbri. Midland Lao live in the central and southern mountains of Laos and are probably the original inhabitants of Laos, having migrated northward in prehistoric times. They speak an assortment of languages of the Austro-Asiatic family but none of these languages has a written script.
Lao Theung, the most economically and socially marginal of the three groups, rely primarily on swidden rice cultivation and both men and women work in the fields. They supplement their income by hunting and gathering forest produce, such as bamboo and rattan sprouts, wild vegetables, mushrooms, tubers, and medicinal plants.
Their houses are built on wooden or bamboo piles and raised between one and two meters above the ground and are at least five by seven meters in size. The floors are constructed using woven bamboo or sawn lumber and walls and grass thatch or bamboo shingles are used as roofing. A kitchen hearth is located inside the house, and an open porch is built on at least one end of the house. A separate rice barn, also built on piles, may be located in the village near the house or on the edge of the village.
Villages are commonly built near a small stream to provide drinking and washing water, which is often diverted through a bamboo aqueduct to facilitate filling buckets and bathing. Important decisions are made by elders, who in the absence of a written script memorize agreements among village members.
Most Lao Theung, are animists and are respected by their lowland neighbors as being especially proficient in protecting against or propitiating spirits that may cause illnesses or accidents. Ancestral spirits are an important aspect of household religious and safety rituals. Rituals are also performed at the start of any important undertaking, for example, at the beginning of rice planting or building a house.
LAO SOUNG - HIGHLAND LAOTIANS: Tibeto Burman and Hmong Yao groups
Tribes that live in the mountains include the Hmong, Meo, Lai, Maew Khao, Maew Dam, Yao, Solo, Hor, Runi, Mu Soer, Phu Noi, Kuy, Kor, and Laen Taen.
Lao Sung or the Lao of the mountain top make up about 9 per-cent of the population and are Tibeto-Burmese speaking people who have migrated to Laos from the north, centuries ago and continue to do so. They include six ethnic groups, Lua (Lua), Hmong (Miao), Yao (Mien), Black Thai, Dao, Shan, and several Tibeto-Burmese speaking people, of which the Hmong, Akha, and Mien (Yao) are the most dominant. They speak an assortment of tribal languages.
In Laos, most highland groups live on the tops or upper slopes of the northern mountains, where they grow rice and corn and other crops in what were once swidden fields. By around the 1970s due to the increase in population and pressure on the land, villages have tended to grow and stay in one place.
Unlike lowland houses, Hmong houses are constructed directly on the ground, with walls made of vertical wooden planks and a thatched or split bamboo roof. They vary in size according to the size of the household, but the minimum size would be five by seven metres. The interior is divided into a kitchen/cooking alcove at one end and several sleeping alcoves at the other. Rice and unhusked corn are usually stored in large woven bamboo baskets inside the house, although a particularly prosperous household may build a separate granary. Almost every house has a simple altar mounted on one wall for offerings and ceremonies associated with ancestral spirits.
HISTORY AND LEGEND:
Many stories and legends surround the origin of the kingdom of Lao. Somkiart Lopetcharat in his book, Lao Buddha the image and its history, quotes Phraya Anuman Rajathon in his book on the Thai nation. One of the legends goes - before the people were given the name Lao, there was a woman named Sayak living in the Ai-Lao Mountains. One day she went fishing and by chance felt a certain strangeness after touching a piece of wood lying beneath the water. She found herself with child and delivered ten children.
This piece of wood later turned into a dragon and appeared above the water. The dragon asked Sayak: "Have you got your babies? Where are they now?” The children were frightened by the sight of the dragon and ran away; except the youngest who was unable to flee with his brothers. He leaned against the dragon which licked him ' The mother answered the dragon in her provincial tongue saying, “Kao Long," which meant the child was leaning against the dragon. She thus named her youngest child Kao Long. The boys grew up, and the nine older ones noticed that the youngest was particularly intelligent and chose him as their chief. The ten boys were believed to be the ancestors of the people of Lan Xang and they were therefore called Ai-Lao, with Nong Sae (now in Yunnan) as their capital.”
Other folktales suggest that the people who lived in that area were the Khmer. Legend has it that a demon named Nantha from Sri Lanka came to establish himself as King of Srisatanakanahut. This is supported by archeological evidence from a ancient Khmer site of a temple, found in southern Laos, at Prasart Hin Wat Phu, which has been dated to the pre-Angkor period (around AD 7-9).
The Ai-Lao people migrated into Laos from southern China in the 8th century and the Khmer who lived there before them were driven out. The first Lao Kingdom, Lan Xang, was founded in the 14th century by King Fa Ngum after he conquered and unified the lands north of and including Luang Prabang, Xieng Khouang and the Khorat plateau. Luang Prabang remained the capital of Lan Xang until the mid 16th century, when it was moved to Vientiane. After the death of Suriya Vongsa in 1694, Lan Xang broke up into three separate Kingdoms; Vientiane; Champasak and Luang Prabang.
During the 18th century the three kingdoms came under Siamese (Thai) rule and, eventually in 1893, became a French protectorate. The territories were incorporated into the union of Indochina. A strong nationalist movement developed during World War II, but France reestablished control in 1946 and made the king of Luang Prabang the constitutional monarch of all Laos. France granted semi autonomy in 1949 and then, full independence within the French Union in 1950.
In 1951, Prince Souphanouvong organized the Pathet Lao, a Communist independence movement, in North Vietnam. Viet Minh and Pathet Lao forces invaded central Laos, and civil war resulted. By the Geneva agreement of 1954 and an armistice of 1955, two Northern provinces were given to the Pathet Lao: the rest went to the royal regime. Full sovereignty was given to the kingdom by the Paris agreements of Dec. 29, 1954.
The Communist Pathet Lao seized complete power in 1975 and the monarchy was abolished on Dec 2, 1975, when the Pathet Lao ousted a coalition government and the King abdicated.
Folk performances keep the hearts beating and the feet tapping. Laos has a tradition of folk theatre,
maw lam, which is humorous, flirtatious repartee or banter usually between two or more persons of the opposite sex. Themes include everyday events, politics, sex etc. These performances are often accompanied by musical instruments like the
khene and/or guitar, even drums or hand clapping. The most popular folk dance is the lam wong or circle dance, in which couples dance in circles around one another until they form three circles, in which the third circle includes the whole crowd. The
Pha Lak Pha Lam, a dance drama based on the Hindu epic Ramayana is also very popular.
In Laos, festivals (boun) are celebrated round the year and are a time of fun and celebration, courtship and socializing, brisk trade and business, rituals and prayers, a time of paying homage to and invoking the blessings of the protective deities, an expression of gratitude and remembrance. Some festivals are local to a particular province, while others are celebrated through out the country.
The year begins with the Harvest Festival, as soon as the rice is harvested, a ceremony is held to give thanks to the spirits of the land for the plentiful harvest and to invoke blessings for the next one.
In Champasak Province, a festival is held during the full moon in March at the Wat Phou ruins. Festivities include elephant races, buffalo fights, cock fighting, and traditional Lao music and dance performances and more recently a trade fair.
A temple based Buddhist festival in March lasting for three days and three nights is centered on the telling of the Jatka, the story of Prince Vestsantara, a previous life of the Buddha. April sees a water festival when people splash water on one another to cleanse themselves of misfortune and to bring luck in the coming year. At the Rocket Festival, a month later, hand-made rocket are fired into the air to lure the gods to make rain for the coming rice-growing season. This is a wild and happy ceremony with plenty of music, dance, provocative performances and street processions.
In the month of May the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha are commemorated with beautiful candlelit processions, in the evening.
July is a time of study and young men in Laos are traditionally ordained as monks at this time of the year, for three months. In October, they rejoin their families. The occasion is marked by a delightful ceremony. All over the country, small banana leaf boats called heua fai are floated on rivers, in the evening, with offerings of incense, candles and small amounts of money to bring luck and prosperity. Special offerings are made to the deceased on the new moon of the 9th lunar month and lay believers give beautiful wax flower candles and other offerings to the monks to gain merit. Around the full moon in November, hundreds of monks, receive floral offerings from merit-makers. This is followed by parades, fire works and music. The National Day is celebrated on 2nd December.
TRADITIONAL ARTS & CRAFTS:
“Owing to the extreme fragility of the intangible cultural heritage, due to its means of transmission (verbal-pottery, myths, stories, and/or bodily action – music and performing arts, including rituals), its works are threatened with destruction or with evolving towards a standardized international production. These transient arts are in danger of losing all originality, yet we must not dismiss entirely the hybrid culture which is developing: it exists and constitutes a re-creation and, as such it too deserves to be observed and studied. Nevertheless traditional culture must be given priority”, writes Georges Condominas in his article, “Safeguarding and Promoting the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Lao Minority Groups”. This is true for crafts as well.
This documentation endeavors to study traditional crafts and their evolution to the present day. Crafts in Laos have traditionally developed around the agricultural economy, in response to local functional or ritual needs. Patronage, in the form of commissions for high-quality craft items and textiles, from the Lao royal courts and classes and Buddhist temples and monasteries has further sustained the crafts. There is an enormous wealth of craft techniques among the various ethnic groups. This can be seen in the following areas:
Textile weaving and dyeing skills, sewing and embroidering skills, amongst the various groups has led to the creation of the most beautiful textiles and colourful costumes in the world.
Basket weaving, using cane and bamboo. This craft is practiced by all the ethnic groups. Other articles made are fish and animal traps, fish nets, mats and a variety of household containers and baskets.
Woodwork and wood carving - articles for daily use such as cross bows, spears, bows and arrows, tobacco pipes, bowls, spoons and combs are fashioned with wood. Boatbuilding is another skill among some of the ethnic groups. Of importance, is also the carving of religious objects – Buddha images and other items of ritual use.
Musical instruments such as lutes, drums, flutes, reed trumpets, mouth organs and idiophones are manufactured from a variety of materials including reed and bamboo and various metals.
Silver and gold smithing and the production of jewelry from multi-coloured glass beads are practiced by a number of ethnic groups.
Buddhist Art – painting, sculpture and carving – a tradition going back more than 600 years
Temple Architecture – displays an immense diversity of forms
Other important traditional crafts include paper making and pottery
Since 1986, an increasing number of both state and private initiatives have been taken to raise the quality of products as well as increase the production of handicraft items. Marketing initiatives such as participation in annual trade fairs to promote Lao crafts both at home and abroad are being taken. Lao craft production currently accounts for just under 15 per cent of total industrial output, and the government is seeking to increase this. At the same time, the significance of this sector can be understood by the fact that 80-90 per cent of the products on display in any fair / exhibition are handicrafts, of which textiles constitute the largest portion. Many museums have been set up to preserve traditional crafts and textiles.